Community Leader Award winner driven to give back by his own childhood challenges

MD student Peter Anto Johnson’s many passions all lead to one laser focus—translating medical science to support wellness and happiness in the communities he loves to serve.


Second-year medical student Peter Anto Johnson has received the U of A's Community Leader Award for his exceptional efforts to create student-led organizations and his work with schools and communities to promote well-being and happiness. (Photo: John Ulan)

Living in relative isolation due to COVID-19 has inspired bread-baking sprees in some, learning to play guitar or the adoption of new workout habits in others. For Peter Anto Johnson, a second-year MD student and this year’s Community Leader Award winner at the University of Alberta, the enforced time spent at home meant it was time to write a book—or at least part of one.

With most classes online, Johnson found himself with more time than he was used to over the summer. Together with twin brother John—also in his second year of medical school—he approached Austin Mardon for some research guidance. Mardon teaches in the Department of Psychiatry and over the years has become a favourite mentor for Johnson. What began in his mind as a potential paper quickly morphed into e-Mental Health: Progress, Challenge and Change, a book that explores and synthesizes existing studies and theories in relation to two facets of e-mental health: the process of pursuing counselling or therapy virtually and the psychological wellness of people in relationship with technology. 

Johnson is one of several contributors to the book, with much of his portion focusing on topics such as why e-mental health is particularly important during COVID-19 and the generational gaps the pandemic has exposed in our relationship to technology, as well as the physical and psychological health effects of digital technology on both kids and adults.

Desire to serve sparks wide interests

Johnson has always been an energetic and enthusiastic student, pushing ever forward into new areas of interest, always with the desire to serve at the basis of whatever project he’s pursuing. As an undergraduate and president of Run for Support and Health, he and fellow club members formed PLAY (Physical Literacy for Active Youth), volunteering with several preschools and day-care centres to help young children develop healthy physical habits. 

A master’s degree in pediatrics helped Johnson further hone an interest in child health that began in his own childhood. Johnson was born in a remote area in India, and came very close to death at 11 months after a frightening case of intussusception, a condition that twists and clogs the intestines. Shortly after, the family moved to Canada. As a young boy, he often heard his parents’ retelling of how doctors saved his life—which became a motivating force behind his drive to study neonatal and child medicine, he recalled. 

“I felt I could help children like me, experiencing life-changing procedures like I did.” 

As his medical studies progress, Johnson’s interests grow broader. With access to researchers in pediatrics, outside the department and across the university, he has grown to love the interdisciplinary aspect of medicine and enjoys following a variety of lines of inquiry. 

The Community Leader Award affirms for Johnson that he is putting his energies in the right places. 

“It takes a village to raise a child,” he said. “Growing up, I was privileged to receive help when I faced challenges and support when I had no one to rely on. Through my service, I hope to pay it forward to members in the community who are in vulnerable positions now, like I was in the past, and inspire them to become the village for the child."

Johnson’s community-mindedness and intellectual curiosity have led to him being recognized as one of the 2019 Alberta Council for Global Cooperation Top 30 under 30, and, last fall, to Johnson’s talk— Breaking the Routine: Learning From Child’s Play—at the annual TEDxUAlberta conference. Using his observations from PLAY as a jumping-off point, he examined how sociological theories about children’s play might be applied to the adult world. 

Finding ways to stay healthy and happy

Even as adults, stuck in patterns that don’t stimulate us or bring us joy—particularly during the pandemic—research shows “we can engage in actions that lay down new neural pathways, naturally increasing our capacity for happiness,” Johnson said. 

Combing through existing research, Johnson found several ways to break out of a rut. “Conversion,” for example, involves a sea change, such as finding a new job, switching programs at school or perhaps moving. If that’s too much, we might try “integration” instead—finding ways to tackle our daily tasks in new and creative ways. Then there’s how we choose to spend our non-working hours. “Diversion”—activities such as sports, hobbies and getting together with friends in our off time—is crucial to maintaining a healthy and happy balance in life. 


Growing up, I was privileged to receive help when I faced challenges and support when I had no one to rely on. Through my service, I hope to pay it forward to members in the community who are in vulnerable positions now, like I was in the past.

Peter Anto Johnson, 2021 Community Leader Award winner

Other than preparing for the TEDx talk—and more than 40 other presentations at virtual conferences, together with his brother John—Johnson has used the unusual circumstances of the past year to practise some of what his research has revealed. 

“My brother and I usually work out after classes, trying to do different things every day and experiment with new ways of playing, getting out and getting active,” he said. Some days they cycle, other days they visit a nearby playground, sometimes they go for a run. 

Johnson is no longer certain of a future in pediatrics—his curiosity may lead him in another direction. But what he does know is he wants to pursue both clinical practice and research.

“Being able to translate from bench to bedside and back again, you can make systemic changes while making a difference to individual patients at the same time,” he explained.

From mentors like Mardon, who was diagnosed with schizophrenia then went on to a PhD in geography and a multi-faceted career, Johnson said he has learned to define success as “how resourceful you are in making the most out of any challenge you face.” 

Being recognized with the Community Leader Award is a powerful affirmation of the work he’s done, he said, and a motivation to keep contributing to society as best he can. 

"Winning this award is an incredible honour. It brings me joy as a symbol of the responsibility and trust my community has given me, and is a reminder to keep working hard and stay humble."